Johnny Clegg: A reminder of our common humanity

Opinion /  / 

Sipho Mchunu and Johnny Clegg thrill the crowd at a concert. File photo: Sbu Mfeka/African News Agency (ANA).
The year was 1987 and our varsity, now known as the University of Limpopo, had been occupied by the South African Defence Force since June 12, 1986.

We called it Turfloop, the University of the North then; but to minister of law and order Louis le Grange and his Defence counterpart Magnus Malan we were a terrorist breeding ground.

My sense over weekends was to board a taxi and visit my parents in the village.

This red brand-new Hi-Ace - bound for Polokwane from Mankweng - was empty that Saturday morning. Being the first passenger meant a long wait for 13 others before setting off. However, the wait was anything but boring. There was a song playing over and over - Asimbonanga.

It left me bewildered about who the artist was, singing about Nelson Mandela, Neil Aggett, Victoria Mxenge and Steve Biko with such impunity during a state of emergency. It was none other than Johnny Clegg. As the taxi trekked the 30km route to Polokwane, the driver kept repeating Asimbonanga. Most of us had not seen Mandela, black and white, and that was Madiba’s unifying feature, according to Clegg.

Madiba has since passed on; and on Wednesday Clegg followed. He succumbed to cancer at 66, but his music is bound to start gaining more prominence. Since 1976, when his curiosity saw him produce hits like Woza Friday, Impi and Ibhola Lethu, he personified what could be in what was then racially polarised.

“I went to six schools in five years,” Clegg told broadcast veteran John Perlman. By the time he was 14, he left his birthplace in the UK, via Zimbabwe and Zambia to Johannesburg. 

His curiosity, coming from a musical family, deepened his interest in maskandi music, joining him with Sipho Mchunu later. His training in social sciences fashioned him into an African conscience.

In the song that gave him his breakthrough in France, allowing him to leave his lecturing post to become a full-time musician, Clegg made probably his most profound observation about Africa being the cradle of humankind.

We are the scatterlings, both you and I - we are on the road to phelamanga (the truth), where the world began, he sang in what was his favourite song.

Meeting him on several occasions and conversing with him in isiZulu always reassured the Afro-optimist in me. Africa was where life began and where global development promises to come full circle.

How curious that it took a British-born, Zimbabwean with a Zambian influence and a burning keenness to learn a different language and culture other than his own to remind South Africans and the world of the significance of this beautiful continent.

Clegg travelled the world, earning the moniker le zoulou blanc in France, for “white Zulu”; but to him the significance of recognising the fellow human in others could always be summed in his phelamanga figure of speech. The truth about our common humanity and origin, he understood, hinges on our ability to reconnect with our Africanness.

If we take anything out of Clegg’s illustrious career, let it be the reminder of our common humanity.

* Victor Kgomoeswana is author of Africa is Open for Business, media commentator and public speaker on African business affairs

* The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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